A Room With No View [ORPHANS]

From the Chicago Reader, September 25, 1987. — J.R.

ORPHANS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Alan J. Pakula

Written by Lyle Kessler

With Albert Finney, Matthew Modine, Kevin Anderson, and John Kellogg.

Although the conventional Hollywood wisdom about adapting plays into movies is that plays should be “opened up,” the practical effect of this is often roughly equivalent to letting the air out of tires: the air may circulate more freely, but the wheels no longer turn. Fortunately Alan J. Pakula is a sensible enough man to recognize this danger, and the best thing that can be said about his movie of Orphans is that, by and large, he has allowed the original play to remain a play. Indeed, only by respecting the integrity of the original has he managed to adapt it into a fairly successful movie.

A contemporary play set in the present, Lyle Kessler’s Orphans has a distinctly uncontemporary, even old-fashioned flavor to it. Largely concerned with intense family relationships and feelings — between brothers, and between father and sons — it has virtually no traces of sadomasochism, which alone suffices to make it unfashionable as theater in this post-Pinter era. In a time when Sam Shepard’s laconic Marlboro ads are experienced as existentially authentic, and Wallace Shawn’s intricate lacerations and varieties of self-loathing are regarded as cathartic, Kessler’s primal depictions of brotherhood and fatherhood, without the usual smirking ironies, are simple and direct to the point of embarrassment.… Read more »

ZULU (and KHARTOUM) on Blu-Ray

zulu-zulus

khartoum2

In a double whammy, Twilight Time has recently brought out splendid new Blu-Rays of two exceptional widescreen colonialist epics, Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964, set in 1879) and Basil Dearden’s Khartoum (1966, set in 1883-1885). Both come equipped with extensive and informed audio commentaries by screenwriter Lem Dobbs and film historian Nick Redman, who are joined on Khartoum by film historian Julie Kirgo, a writer who also contributes essays on all of the Twilight Time releases, including these two.  The first of these movies now strikes me as one of the very greatest of all war films (a genre that I’m not generally partial to), even when it presents combat as potentially noble, succeeding equally in intimate details and in spectacular overviews, whereas the second is at most an intriguing star vehicle for Charlton Heston (as British officer Charles Gordon) and Laurence Olivier (as Sudanese Arab leader Muhammad Ahmad, who dubbed himself the Mahdi), both playing egomaniacal religious fanatics whose two scenes together are the best in the film (although Ralph Richardson as Prime Minister Gladstone also gets in a  few choice bits). The audio commentary in this case is notable for how critical and even disdainful it often is — something that I suspect Criterion would never tolerate on any of its own releases.… Read more »

Afterword to THE BIG BRASS RING, A Screenplay by Orson Welles (with Oja Kodar)

Published with the screenplay by Santa Teresa Press in the fall of 1987, and reprinted in my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles (along with the introductory paragraphs that follow, tweaked and abridged somewhat). The photograph of Welles’s typewriter reproduced below was taken by Kodar’s nephew, Aleksander (“Sasha”).

When I presented [a] Welles tribute at the Santa Barbara film festival in 1986,
one person in the audience who introduced himself to me afterwards was James
Pepper, a local rare book dealer who, in response to my assertion that the        Welles screenplay for The Big Brass Ring should be published, expressed some     interest in bringing out a limited edition of 1,000 copies. Having already brought out a handsome volume devoted to Robert Towne’s original screenplay for Chinatown in a similar way, he seemed to know what he was talking about, and  I conveyed his proposal to Oja Kodar [whom I had recently met at the Rotterdam Film Festival].

The following year, around the time I was preparing to make a permanent move to Chicago to write for the Chicago Reader, the book appeared. And it was roughly two years after then that Gore Vidal published a rave review in the New York Review of Books (“Remembering Orson Welles,” June 1, 1989, vol.Read more »

Dream On (THE DREAMERS)

From the Chicago Reader (February 20, 2004). — J.R.

The Dreamers

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Written by Gilbert Adair

With Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel, Robin Renucci, and Anna Chancellor.

Nostalgia is highly selective, abridging the past and adjusting it to fit the terms of the present — and often becoming an ideological con job in the process. Those who wax nostalgic about the radicalism of their youth usually imply that the values that made it so attractive back then also make it impossible to hold on to today.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, set in Paris over three months in early 1968, focuses on an American student, Matthew (Michael Pitt), who becomes intimately involved with a French brother and sister, Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green), whom he meets at the Cinémathèque. Invited into the siblings’ flat just before their parents leave on vacation, he gets drawn into their perverse and vaguely incestuous games, which combine charades involving movies, sex, and ultimately politics. Their interactions run parallel to the French government’s firing of the disorderly director of the Cinémathèque, Henri Langlois, and the ensuing outcry among cinephiles and filmmakers. Street demonstrations led to clashes with the police — and turned out to be dress rehearsals for the student demonstrations and workers’ strikes that May, which came dangerously close to shutting the country down.… Read more »

Bravery in Hiding [on LUMIÈRE D'ÉTÉ and LE CIEL EST À VOUS]

Jean Grémillon remains one of the major French filmmakers whose films are most egregiously unavailable on DVD, especially when it comes to versions with English subtitles — although I’m delighted to report that Criterion’s Eclipse recently brought out three of his greatest ones, all made during the Occupation, including the two that are discussed here and Remorques. This article appeared in the October 25, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. -– J.R.

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LeCielEstaVous

Lumière d’été **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jean Grémillon

Written by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche

With Madeleine Renaud, Pierre Brasseur, Madeleine Robinson, Paul Bernard, Georges Marchal, and Marcel Lévesque.

Le ciel est à vous **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jean Grémillon

Written by Albert Valentin and Charles Spaak

With Madeleine Renaud, Charles Vanel, Jean Debucourt, Léonce Corne, Albert Rémy, and Robert le Fort.

A friend and colleague, critic and teacher Nicole Brenez, says that the best film criticism consists of films critiquing one another. This may sound a mite abstract, but two very different masterpieces by the great, neglected Jean Grémillon, Lumière d’été and Le ciel est à vous, seem to offer a concrete example of this, as a critique of Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love, which I wrote about last week.… Read more »

Otto Preminger

This was written in the mid-1970s for Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, a two-volume reference work edited by Richard Roud that wasn’t published until 1980 (by The Viking Press in the U.S. and Secker & Warburg in the U.K.), and reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.

Otto Preminger (born 1906) directed five films before Laura (1944) — one Austrian, four American — but since he disowns them, I haven’t seen them, and no commentator to my knowledge has ever spoken well of them, we might as well begin with the (false) assumption that a tabula rasa preceded his early masterpiece.

False assumptions — and clean slates that tend to function like mirrors — are usually central to our experience of Preminger’s work. His narrative lines are strewn with deceptive counter-paths, shifting viewpoints, and ambiguous characters who perpetually slip out of static categories and moral definitions, so that one can be backed out of a conventionally placid Hollywood mansion driveway by somebody and something called Angel Face (1952) (and embodied by Jean Simmons) only to be hurtled without warning over the edge of a cliff. As for tabulae rasae, there is Angel Face herself and her numerous weird sisters — among them Maggie McNamara in The Moon Is Blue (1953), Jean Seberg in Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Eva Marie Saint in Exodus (1960) and, closer to the cradle, the almost invisible Bunny Lake in Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) and Alexandra Hay in Skidoo (1968).… Read more »

THE GOLD DIGGERS Reconsidered

Written for the BFI DVD release of The Gold Diggers in 2009. — J.R.

A quarter of a century after its initial unfriendly reception, it’s worth puzzling over why a film as beautiful, as witty, as imaginative, and as brilliant as Sally Potter’s first feature could have given so much offense to certain spectators in 1983. The recoil was so unforgiving in some quarters that Potter, after touring extensively with the film, came to seriously question it herself — or at least the wisdom of having made it, insofar as it was already threatening to end her ambitious career in filmmaking almost before it had properly started, thereby eventually persuading her to withdraw the film from circulation. (By contrast, the exceptional success of her 34-minute Thriller in 1979, an unpacking of Puccini’s La Bohème, made with many of the same collaborators — most notably Colette Laffont, Lindsay Cooper, and Rose English — had clearly heightened her expectations.) Now that it’s belatedly becoming available again on DVD, it’s more than entitled to a fresh look — including a consideration of what originally perturbed some people about it.

Even after one totes up all of the most obvious of the possible objections that could be raised against The Gold Diggers – boredom, anti-feminist backlash, envy of other independent filmmakers for Potter’s lavish funding from the National Film Board, pretentiousness, allegorical and metaphorical density, sheer difficulty (as Ruby Rich, a sympathetic analyst, put it in her 1998 book Chick Flicks, `Its commitment to narrative [is] minor’) — the inability or refusal of many viewers to grasp or even notice The Gold Diggers’ no less obvious and unassailable strengths continues to confound me.… Read more »

Love in the Time of Terror [Sally Potter's YES]

This appeared in the Chicago Reader‘s July 8, 2005 issue. — J.R.

Yes

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Sally Potter

With Simon Abkarian, Joan Allen, Shirley Henderson, Sam Neill, Wil Johnson, Gary Lewis, Raymond Waring, and Stephanie Leonidas

Yes. A film that irrefutably deserves its title. A film of affirmation. Which is not the same as a story with a happy ending…. If the places in this story become characters, what is the scene? The area of world politics today, nothing less, is the scene — and, above it, the sky to which everyone, at one moment or another, prays. — John Berger

Apparently sales of poetry go up in times of war. — Sally Potter

Many people feel a sense of helplessness about the ongoing war in the Middle East, feelings they’re often unable to articulate, much less address. Sally Potter’s Yes shows one way these feelings can be processed, and in doing so overturns some of the usual assumptions about what movies can and should do. It won’t please everyone, and the sensitive topics it touches on may make some viewers mad enough to spit.

Yes is a post-9/11 love story, set chiefly in London, about a passionate adulterous affair between an Irish-American scientist (Joan Allen), who’s unhappily married to an English politician, and a somewhat younger Lebanese cook (Simon Abkarian), who’s unmarried and used to work as a surgeon in Beirut.… Read more »

SHIRIN as Mirror

Written in 2010 for the Cinema Guild’s DVD release of Shirin. — J.R.

It doesn’t do justice to Shirin to call it the most conceptual of Abbas Kiarostami’s films. But it probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it the most paradoxical. Not the least of its paradoxes is the way that it simultaneously confronts and defies the specter of commercial cinema, qualifying at once as his most traditional feature and his most experimental. By focusing almost exclusively on the fiction of women watching a commercial feature that we can hear but never see — a feature that in fact doesn’t exist, apart from its manufactured soundtrack — one might even say that Kiarostami, an experimental, non-commercial filmmaker par excellence, is perversely granting the wish of fans and friends who have been urging him for years to make a more “accessible” film with a coherent plot, a conventional music score, and well-known actors.

What’s perverse about this is that the plot in question, while drawing from a traditional epic, a medieval romance widely known in Iran, belongs to an unseen and imaginary film whose on-screen spectators are precisely those well-known actors. (Both men and women comprise this imaginary audience of 110 individuals, although the only viewers featured in close-ups are women.) Yet despite the uses of a conventional plot and music and well-known actors, none of the usual commercial rules for commercial movies are met.… Read more »

America in Welles’ European Films: A Few Speculations

A lecture written circa fall 2002, I forget for which occasion. I’m not even sure if this represents a complete or final draft. This was written before the belated rediscovery of The Third Man in Vienna (not one of the better episodes in Around the World with Orson Welles, alas, and now available on DVD).  — J.R.

My point of departure for this paper is remarks that have been made by myself and others about OrsonWelles’ three completed features of the 1950s —- Othello, Mr. Arkadin, and Touch of Evil—- and how these reflect his attitudes towards what was happening in the United States around the same time. More specifically, I’m thinking of my own speculation that Othello (1952) may have something to do with the Hollywood blacklist and witch hunts, and James Naremore’s observation that the character of Van Stratten (Robert Arden) in Mr. Arkadin (1955), “quite by accident, bears an uncanny resemblance to a young, athletic Richard Nixon,” relates to the Cold War (with Arkadin having been modeled to some degree on Josef Stalin and the character of Van Stratten suggesting Richard Nixon in certain respects).

Now I hasten to add that the conscious intentionality of Welles in relation to either of these relationships or many others like them probably fluctuates a good deal, and that this isn’t my only frame of reference.Read more »

Welles in the Lime Light

From the July 30, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. This is also reprinted in my book Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.

The Third Man

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Carol Reed

Written by Graham Greene

With Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Ernst Deutsch, Siegfried Breuer, and Erich Ponto.

Ironically, the most successful and beloved movie Orson Welles was ever associated with — and the one that may have had the most significant effect on the remainder of his career — has not been one of his own. Admittedly, Citizen Kane has more prestige, but that’s a relatively recent development; for the first quarter of a century after it was made, it was criticized as “uncinematic” in the few standard works of film history available, such as The Liveliest Art and The Film Till Now. Instead it was The Third Man (1950) that was most often cited with pleasure when Welles’s name came up. “Didn’t he direct that?” was something I used to hear a lot. Today I hear “Didn’t he direct at least some of the scenes?”

From the testimony of everyone involved, including Welles, we know that he wrote one brief and highly memorable speech comparing Italy and Switzerland (which he once claimed he cribbed from an old Hungarian play) and rewrote a couple of his other lines in the same scene.… Read more »

The Greening of Switzerland

This book review was the first thing I ever wrote for The Soho News, a small-time weekly competitor of The Village Voice that I wrote for every week for about a year and a half (1980-81), reviewing books as well as movies on a fairly regular basis. I did 68 pieces for them in all, and this first effort, as I recall, was a kind of trial balloon. — J.R.

The Greening of Switzerland

by Jonathan Rosenbaum
——————————————————-

Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party

By Graham Greene
Simon and Schuster, $9.95

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“The meat is excellent, but I have no appetite,” remarks the noble, grief-stricken narrator of Graham Greene’s opulent 21st novel — plain old Alfred Jones, a middle-class voyeur like us — at the climactic title party, in response to a query from the wealthy title host and villain. Then he adds more confidentially, to the reader, “I helped myself to another glass of Mouton Rothschild; it wasn’t for the flavor of the wine that I drank it, for my palate seemed dead, it was for the distant promise of a sort of oblivion.” The same sort of delicious oblivion, one might add, that we normally expect from a new Greene novel — which is the sort that the latest one amply supplies.… Read more »

Gee, Dad, It’s a Wurtlitzer (Review of SLOW FADE)

This book review appeared in the December 14, 1984 issue of the Los Angeles Reader. For more on Wurlitzer, readers are invited to check out my reviews of Walker and Candy Mountain in the Chicago Reader, both available on this site, as well as a more comprehensive piece about his work as a novelist and screenwriter,published in Written By.  — J.R.



Slow Fade

By Rudolph Wurlitzer

Alfred A. Knopf: $13.95

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

 

The difference between the art novel and the Hollywood novel can be as vast as the reaches between the East coast and the West coast, and any effort to wed the two in a shotgun marriage is liable to blow up in one’s face. Slow Fade, while an exceptionally and deceptively easy read, is far from being an easy book — which is one of the best things about it. That’s probably what Michael Herr means by “dangerous” in his jacket-blurb patter: “Slow Fade comes out of the space between real life and the movies and closes it up for good. A great book: beautiful, funny, and dangerous.” Any novel that begins with one character losing an eye and ends up with another losing his index finger is bound to be fraught with scary Oedipal tensions, and Slow Fade goes out of its way to make the most out of them.… Read more »

What We Ate in That Year (1964 review of A MOVEABLE FEAST)

From the Bard Observer, September 9, 1964. -– J.R.

What We Ate in That Year

A MOVEABLE FEAST, by Ernest Hemingway, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 211 pp., $4.95.

In the spring of that year, long after he was dead, a book of his was published and it was a good book. He had not written a good book for quite some time and the critics were beginning to worry. They had wanted to say something good about him now that he was dead, but there were no good books to say good things about except for those written twenty and thirty years ago, and they (the critics) had already spoken enough about the earlier ones anyway.

The new book was about Paris of long ago when he and his friends were writing the earlier books. In those days there was Miss Stein and Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis and Ford Maddox Ford and several others. Some were good and some were very good and others were not so good at all. He was not like the others because he was not a homosexual or an alcoholic and he did not have bad breath or look evil. Much of the time he would write, and during the times that he would not write he would walk the shaded avenues or go to the races.… Read more »

More Vidal (Review of MYRON)

I wrote this book review for The Village Voice shortly after I moved to London from Paris in 1974 (which helps to explain how I could cite the English paperback of Myra Breckinridge), so I was more than likely a little miffed when the Voice noted at the end of the piece, “Jonathan Rosenbaum is a film critic presently living in Paris.” Although I think this review suffers a bit from the Voice‘s overheated smart-alecky manner during this period, which I was only too willing to adopt (and which makes some of my gripes potentially open to the charge of the pot calling the kettle black), I was reminded of both this review and Myra Breckinridge/Myron while recently reading Vidal’s somewhat similar 1978 novel Kalki, which has a similarly formidable heroine-narrator with a comparably ambiguous relation to gender. — J.R. [4/3/09]

More Vidal

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

_____________________________________________________

Myron

Gore Vidal

Random House, $6.95
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Myra Breckenridge was a stunt: a clever gay trick pulled on a straight  audience — or, if one prefers, a bisexual prank pulled on a unisexual audience — with kibitzers and spectators welcome on either side of the ironies, different jokes for different folks.… Read more »